A Mild-Mannered Reporter: DC Universe Online in review

In unrelated news, I apparently lost the stuff I had saved about how to do these headers properly, so now I have to try and recreate them from memory.
One of the things I like about my job is the part where I have to play a lot of different games. This is not my default state -- I will happily latch on to games that I like and play them into the ground. The 100-plus hours I've clocked into every Mass Effect installment is proof enough of this. But playing a wider variety of games has given me several opportunities to see things in games, nod my head, and exclaim, "Yes! This is what people should be doing? Why do more games not do this?"

DC Universe Online had me saying that about a lot of elements. And every time I figured I was good and done, I found another one.

A month boomeranging back and forth between lower levels on both factions isn't enough time to get a sense for how the game shakes out over the long run, but it does provide a fairly good overview of the game as a whole. And there's a lot of elements in the game that I found astonishingly clever. It didn't offset the parts that I found somewhat tedious or broken, but it did make the game as a whole interesting on multiple levels.

Style is always a relative term.A good example is the Styles setup. I admit to being a bit leery at first that you had more limited options during character creation, but the net result is absolutely excellent. I was vaguely pleased when I started, and more time playing with the feature has left me absolutely enraptured by the whole process. It's incredibly simple, it allows you to keep the look you want instead of forcing you to have unattractive equipment, and it means you can also keep a tangible sense of what your character has accomplished over time.

Plus, it's such a simple system that it's almost embarrassing that more games haven't adopted it by now. For all the talk of cosmetic gear and how to handle cosmetic systems, the answer is right here. DC Universe Online figured it out, folks. Do what this game did.

This is hardly the only flash of brilliance. The game's races are lightweight, cute, challenging without being insurmountable, and just plain fun. In a genre that's long sat around asking what players can do other than fight things, again, an answer is right here and it works great. Especially with the pseudo-parkour aspects of Acrobatics, but that's personal preference speaking.

Of course, the bulk of the game is combat. You get a quest to go do something, and more often than not the "something" involves beating the stuffing out of several people. The quests themselves are a bit by-the-numbers, but the system for crediting people for achievements was remarkably even. There were many times that I would be pounding on enemies around an objective and someone else would swoop in to click it... and then I got credit for the objective just the same. I can't think of a single time that I was trying to clear something and someone else actually prevented me from doing so.

Combat itself, on the other hand, suffers in part because of the UI. It's an interface meant to handle both PC and console players, but in the process it omits some information I find kind of crucial. There are no good indicators I found, for instance, to tell me how long a self-buff had before it would wear off. I could see the indicator that meant I had a buff, but not the one that would tell me "this will last for X amount of time."

The actual flow of combat is generally fun with occasional moments of frustration. Some controls seemed awkward with or without a controller, like throwing items. Some controls were awkward with a controller but very natural with a mouse and keyboard (movement, targeting, activating powers). Some controls were the exact opposite (melee attacks, especially timing-intensive ones, and blocking). Struggling with the controls in action combat is not something you should be doing on a regular basis.

It features my favorite Bizarro design, so that's good.At the same time, once you pick your poison and work around the awkward parts, the actual mechanics of beating things up are clean and efficient. There were no fights that I felt just demanded endless button-mashing and no mechanics requiring arcane manipulation of the controls. I had to overcome my natural impulse to use powers toward the end of combos, since the game wants you to open off with them, but that's on me and not the game.

The powers were... somewhat mixed. Some of the powers don't feel like they flow together well from my limited experience, and others fall into the trap of being clearly designed for situations that I can't get a sense of out of context. Maybe I just picked the wrong sets for my playstyle, I'm not sure.

My few attempts at PvP were a bit confusing, mostly because I was working in the Legends setup, which requires you to learn a whole new character and jump right in instead of letting you use your old standby. It does, at the very least, seem better developed than the PvP in City of Heroes or Champions Online, but that's a low bar to clear.

But this isn't a game where you're constantly dropping powers like most superhero games. This is a game very much in the style of its source material. And that's the best praise I can give the game as a whole -- it knows what it's trying to do (feel like a game based in the DC Universe) and it succeeds at that brilliantly, bringing along with it several wonderful implementations of rather incidental systems.

Worth playing? Heck yes. But I'd recommend it on the PC over the console, just because the awkward bits with the controller are far worse than the awkward bits with the keyboard and mouse.

As always, the comments and my email (eliot@massively.com) are open for you to speak your mind. Next week, I'm going to talk about a more meta topic -- what makes a game a proper superhero game? Because it's not as clear-cut as you might think.

By day a mild-mannered reporter, Eliot Lefebvre spent years in City of Heroes before the world-shattering event that destroyed his home world. But he remains as intrepid as ever, traveling to other superheroic games and dispensing his unique brand of justice... or lack thereof.

This article was originally published on Massively.